How I explain race to my mixed-race children

Guest post by Christina Simon
Christine and her family. Photo by Porcha Dodson.

“African American.” “Black.” “Mulatto.” “Biracial.” “Mixed-Race.” “Multi-Racial.” Other. It’s not always easy to explain race to children. I’ve struggled over the right words to use more than a few times. Do I say “black” or “African American?”

I’m a mixed-race mom (African American and white) who married a white guy. Our kids are obviously mixed. Being mixed has shaped my identity, made me who I am. I’ve always felt different, but in a good way. Sure, I’ve had my share of racist insults and rejection hurled at me, but nothing that I wasn’t able to shake off. Now, I’m raising mixed-race kids and I have the challenge of helping them discover and embrace their unique identity.

My kids are seven and ten years old. For the past few years, discussions about race and identity have been a regular part of our family dinner conversations. When my kids were about four or five they’d ask why we all have different skin colors. For a while, confusion ensued about which one of us is black and which is white. This was hilarious because they didn’t really understand how a person could be both. Then, they started to understand the concept of race. Now, they get it… I think. The other day, my seven-year-old son asked me to remind him who in our family is African American. I find it touching that he sees me as “Mom” and not by my skin color.

When my kids were younger, they often identified themselves as different races. My daughter would say that my son was African American, but she was white. I’ve explained the concept of being mixed to them in the same way it was explained to me by my parents. I was always told I was an incredibly lucky person to have parents from two different races and cultures. I often tell my kids the same thing.

Today, the issues for mixed-race individuals are as much about our self-identity as they are about the way we are defined by others. Deciding which boxes to check on the Census form is empowering for me. Knowing that people understand mixed-race individuals are a growing part of our culture is significant. Still, as in the past, we are defined by our skin color. President Obama is mixed-race, but he self-identifies — and is identified by others — as a black man based on the color of his skin.

I want [my kids] to know that they are unique and special, in part, because of their mixed heritage — not in spite of it.

As a mother of mixed-race kids, I know I have two important tasks. First I want my kids to understand both sides of their heritage, African American and white (Jewish). Secondly, perhaps my most complicated challenge is to help foster a strong sense of self-esteem in my kids. Yes, they are different from non-mixed kids. But I want them to know that they are unique and special, in part, because of their mixed heritage — not in spite of it. My hope for them is that they grow up being able to comfortably navigate both of their worlds, embracing who they are as exquisite individuals.

When I talk to my kids about being mixed, I emphasize the positive attributes that come with belonging to two races. I’m also honest about the fact that some people may not like them because they are mixed. These people, I tell them, are ignorant. It’s always eye-opening to explain racism to a child. I tend to draw on inspiring references from history like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement to tell my kids about African American struggles for equality.

Recently, I asked my kids if they could name any famous people who are mixed, African American and white. “President Obama and Lenny Kravitz,” said my daughter without hesitation. I smile when my son tells me it doesn’t matter what color somebody is — he says what matters is their character. I couldn’t have said it better.

Comments on How I explain race to my mixed-race children

  1. Great article! Isn’t it interesting how talking about Big Issues with our kids tweaks our points of view about them. It forces me to put my feelings into words about things like racism, sexism and homophobia, which is good for me, I think.

  2. I commend you for being so open and honest with your children about a subject that can hurt when it’s swept under the rug. I am mixed race (black and filipino)and my parents and the people around me did not know how to handle my mixed-ness so I grew up with a very skewed identity and very little self confidence. I have since learned how to embrace my uniqueness and my boyfriend and I look forward to having a bunch of little brown babies!

  3. This is great! I’m fillipino/white and never really grew up being able to claim either as a cultural identifier being “not white enough for the white kids and not asian enough for the asians” and that was a huge struggle for me. Everyone wants their kids to be colorblind, but being in a predominantly white neighborhood, me and my baby girl stick out like sore thumbs. She’s only 2 so we’ve got a way to go, but this has really given me some perspective on how to approach this. THank you!

  4. Hi Everyone! Thank you all for your really insightful and interesting comments! I love writing about mixed-race issues and hearing from other people’s perspective, whether they’re mixed or not.

    Heading over to check out Rain Pryor’s site now.


  5. I will have to come back and re-read this when my kids start asking questions. For now, my daughter takes it for granted that grandad is aa dark man with coarse hair, grandma is asian with black hair, and mommy is a pink color with light hair. To her, thats normal. But someday she may get called a name ( Mulatto bothers me, it means Mule) and also notice that her friends parents are mostly the same shade.

      • I am of Black, Puerto Rican, Italian, Swedish, Native American, and Polynesian heritage. I am proud of the long raid it took to create me and my children. But I have discovered from living in an all white area growing up my brother who has blind hair blue eyes was more readily accepted by whites, while I was more accepted by Latinos, and blacks. My mother made a good point: always be proud of what you are, including the black because most who are of multi-cultured heritages tend to steer clear of the black part” I detest the word race it doesn’t exist, yet so many freely use it, our governments have done well in brainwashing. Mixed my mother always said for a term used for dogs not people. Hence we were brought up to say multi- cultural because it shouldn’t be focused on color but culture.

  6. Your positive feelings about your own mixed-race heritage shine through in this piece and I’m sure are felt in the dialogue you have with your children about their heritage. Reading this made me reflect on how I talk about adoption (I was adopted and am in reunion with my birthmother) to my kids, and how adoption has shaped our family tree. I hope that I facilitate that conversation with the same aplomb as you!

  7. I love how our kids encourage us in their own way to put love and joy into words. You are a special mom and your kids are lucky to confide in you and explore their heritage with you.

  8. As a mixed kid raised by not so understanding parents, it’s great to see how (with the right attitude) mixed kids can get a positive view on their heritage. I agree also that honesty is the best policy. They are bound to face these difficult issues of race, sexuality, and religion and the best thing you can do is to be open and honest. That way they always know that they can go to you.

  9. My mother is white, my sister and I do not share the same father. Her father is black while my father is white. Growing up, other people questioned it a lot more than either of us ever did.

    We got a lot of “are you guys adopted?” Which, of course, the answer to was no. My mother raised us knowing that we were her children, and we were sisters, and that was just simply all that mattered.

    You have a beautiful family!

  10. I’m currently pregnant with my first child and I have begun to think about this exact situation. Although it’s not so much about skin color in my case (my husband and I are both fair skinned), I want to make sure that my children are proud to be Irish-Colombian Americans and incorporate both cultures.

    I also feel very strongly about my children being biligual and would love to hear from other moms on the same boat- maybe get some strategies on how this can be done.

  11. I can’t believe the timing of this – I was just thinking about how to raise my child (currently pregnant) in this mixed race world where categories and boxes don’t apply.

    For me, the issue isn’t so much explaining my child’s heritage or questions about race that naturally come up in mixed-race families, (my husband and I along with extended family are all Caucasian). I’m worried that my child will assume that they, as a light skinned child of light skinned parents are “normal” and others aren’t with the topic never being questioned. I cling to a vision of my son or daughter having dolls and toys representing all races and seeing people as human rather than different colors, but how does that happen? I’m curious if other OBMs have any suggestions about how to discuss race if it doesn’t come up. Or, if it comes up naturally in non-mixed race families – how has that conversation started for your family?

    By the way – The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History is opening an exhibit on race this weekend: I’m hoping their educational material may provide some answers to my questions – but I’d love to hear from this community, too.


    I am seven months pregnant and I am also half black and half white. My husband is white. I have always worried about how I would deal with these issues as they come up. I personally have never found race to be a big deal and I never understood why people needed me to define myself as either black or white. I’m both!

    I was afraid to start this article because I have read so many similar articles where the children were encouraged to “pick a race.” That is just crazy to me.

    It was so wonderful to finally read an article where not only were the kids educated about ALL SIDES of their heritage, but it sounds like they have also been taught that it’s not the one thing that defines them as a person. THANK YOU.

  13. Hi Again! Your comments are so awesome! I used to get asked a lot, “what are you?” by strangers, mostly white. African Americans can tell I’m mixed. My response, when I was a kid, was “I’m American”. That answer did not satisfy them. They’d push harder for an answer. “No, what ARE you?”. Then, I’d usually tell them. I think it’s important to surround your kids with other families of all backgrounds, if possible. Send them to diverse schools, make friends that are different than your family and talk about it at home.
    Thanks for reading!

    • I agree about having diverse friends, but oddly even though I live in a very diverse region, all our friends with kids near my daughter’s age are caucasian. I hope preschool will allow her to make more “brown” friends.

  14. Even if you attend a school with no diversity there will be someone who will zero in on a perceived “difference.” We must teach our children that acceptance is the most important attribute they can possess.

  15. Hi Christina,
    My husband and I both are white. We are adopting a mixed race heritage baby. The mother is white and the father is African American. I so want to get this right for our child. How would you recommend dealing with the race issues. What would be the best way to instill pride and teach the child heritage from both races. I really do not want her to grow up feeling like she does not belong with either race.

    • Hi Haley! The fact that you’re thinking about the issue is wonderful. I wrote a piece for a brand new blog called, Diary Of A Mixed (Up) Kid called “Tips For Raising Mixed-Race Kids”.

      I don’t even pretend to have all the answers. I’m just a mixed-race mom raising mixed kids. For me, the most important thing you can do is to make sure your child knows there are other mixed-race kids just like him/her. Feeling like you’re alone in this world, the only one, etc. is very lonely. If you can make sure your kid knows he/she isn’t alone, that there are others just like him/her, that’s really important.

    • Hi Haley! The fact that you’re thinking about the issue is wonderful. I wrote a piece for a brand new blog called, Diary Of A Mixed (Up) Kid called “Tips For Raising Mixed-Race Kids”.

      I don’t even pretend to have all the answers. I’m just a mixed-race mom raising mixed kids. For me, the most important thing you can do is to make sure your child knows there are other mixed-race kids just like him/her. Feeling like you’re alone in this world, the only one, etc. is very lonely. If you can make sure your kid knows he/she isn’t alone, that there are others just like him/her, that’s really important.

  16. I definitely need to start thinking about this subject. I’m an Irish-American girl(yup, i’m a ginger!), with a German fiance…sooo needless to say our kids are supa-white!! LOL But this is where it gets interesting…i’m adopted, so are my brother and sister. They are from Korea (different regions, so different features and skin tones) my Mom is Italian, my Dad is Lebanese. So to me this is “normal”, but my kids don’t really get why my side doesn’t look alike at all, and Daddy’s side does…

    But regardless, all families are beautiful!!!

  17. Love this post!! I’m mixed myself ( 1/2 black and 1/2 white) and issues of identity were something I had to figure out on my own, since my family rarely talked about it. I think it’s great you’re having open discussions with your kids, and encouraging them to embrace both heritages. I can’t wait to see how your kids’ generation views identity and race–Im pretty sure it’ll be different from the views of my generation (I’m 30).

  18. Thank you for sharing your experiences. This issue is something I’ve been thinking about when contemplating an adoption with my partner. She is Mexican and I am technically mixed-race (my grandparents were of Irish, Dutch, French-Canadian, and Filipino ancestry) but self-identify as white in most instances. I also am read by others as white (have the pale skin, pink cheeks, and freckles of my European ancestors), where my sister (who has the same biological parents) is several shades darker than I am, is often asked “what she is”, and will frequently check multiple boxes on census forms and the like.

    Whatever child(ren) we adopt will be part of a transracial adoption; they may also be mixed. I know that my partner and I (and eventually our children) will need to be both sensitive to the consequences of creating a “different”-looking family as well as aware of the practicalities of our lives together.

  19. Thank you AP and Planning Ahead for your comments! I think my parents did a great job helping me understand what it means to be mixed. And, I think (and hope) our generation of kids will have an easier time being mixed-race.

  20. My kids are half Chinese and half Jewish, they call themselves Chewish. My seven year old thought he was also part French, not sure where he got that!
    Thank you for such an insightful, inspiring article. The photo of your family is gorgeous.

  21. My husband is Jewish-Hispanic-White and I’m Appalachian White.

    When/if we have kids, I would explain this:

    People are all really, really different, and to make life easier, we like to organize each other into types or systems, like how you could put all of your summer shoes in one box and your winter shoes in another box. That system works, because you can find your shoes based on the weather and when you need them.

    Some of the systems people make are good. And some are bad. And some aren’t good or bad, but they just exist. Gender is like dividing your shoes into winter and summer. But there are other seasons, and sometimes we wear our winter shoes in the summer. So you use that system, or you can not use that system. Either way is okay. It’s just helpful to know that most people do that.

    Race is another system. It’s like dividing all your shoes by color. Blue shoes. Red shoes. Brown shoes. Green shoes. A lot of people like this system too. But sometimes your shoes are a different color, or many colors — like your shoes that red and pink. So they don’t fit in any box. And that’s okay. You can organize your shoes a different way. And you can think of people in different ways.

    Some people look at your dad and think he’s white. Some people think it’s important to recognize that he has different colors. I just love your dad, so I just think of him that way. You’re from both of us, so you’re whatever you want to be!

    So when I think of you and your daddy, I would put you in a special box that is only for my favorite shoes, because that’s how I see you.

  22. As much as I adore this site and the perspectives it brings to the foreground, I find fault with this article.

    I myself am African-American and Caucasian. My race plays no factor in my life (aside from some annoying hair issues). I find that the same phrase I use in my relationship applies here; If you make it a big deal, it is a big deal. How are your children “different” from single race children? They tan faster? Your children are different and unique because they are individuals, not because of the box checked on a census.

    • Ideally, I think this would be the case, and I am hopeful that in some places it is. (The more, the better!) But it’s not the case everywhere. There are mixed-race children who are made to feel very different, and that often leads to hurt, and it’s a parent’s job to help them make sense of, cope with, or defy that treatment.

      I grew up in a very racist town that was prodominately white where my biracial cousin was physically and emotionally bullied for his “difference,” yet he came home to parents that refused to discuss it or even recognize it. It wasn’t helpful. I wish he’d had a parent that had taught him early on how to develop his own identity, independent of but not ignorant of his race. It would have been healthier than having others who were mean-spirited an ignorant define it for him, which is what happened.

      I don’t think there’s any suggestion that you should love or parent your child differently.

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